“And I can never go home anymore. And that’s called ‘sad’.”
I gotta say the Drums’ debut was a bit of a lifesaver. Its mix of infectious melody, heartfelt wonder, childlike loneliness, witty lyricisms, and naïve romance saw me through many a mess o’ blues. On first listen Portamento, in all honesty, felt comparatively flat, a frantic panic of ideas, sounds and moods. Many hours on the psychiatrist’s couch and several listens later though it started to click, choruses bloomed, toes were tapped, hearts melted and—yay!—new saviours emerged from the fog. On every level, Portamento is a more complex, creative, and ultimately unusual record than its predecessor. Following a “build ‘em up, knock ‘em down” rites of passage lashing from the perverse UK press and the sudden exit of one of their gang, this is the sound of a band going all-in and the result is by turns heroic, admirable and strange, but never less than intriguing.
“Oh let it begin, let it begin,” decrees lead Drum Jonathan Pierce. Rather comfortably, the first half of Portamento pretty much flows seamlessly on from the debut and finds things business as usual at Chez Drum. Basically, classy, sassy pop bangers, one after another. “Book of Revelations” recites all the Drums’ commandments—bass heavy, shuffling skiffle rhythms with a catchy-as-hell chorus the height ‘n’ width of a skyscraper. “I’ve seen the world and there’s no heaven and no hell,” declares Pierce, kicking over the pearly gates like some lapsed preacher from a Flannery O’Connor tale. “I believe that when we die, we die, so let me love you tonight.” Hallelujah, joyful and triumphant! Heaven can’t wait!
Future enormo-anthems are tossed off with such giddy abandon it’s as if the Drums could do this imperial pop malarkey blindfold. Super-fast Strokes-alike single “Money” promptly offers the album’s most sing-a-long moment: “Before we die, I’d like to do something nice / I’d like to buy you something, but I don’t have any mo-neey.” A tale of street-urchin lovers pressing their grubby faces against the windows of the Mansion on the Hill. It’s the Drums showboating and it’s hard to suppress a girlish Beatlemania-style shriek of approval. Almost as euphoric is “What You Were”, a latchkey cousin of Bowie’s “Modern Love”, which packs a punchy, bouncy, coolly high hip ‘n’ danceable and a surprising, smooth ‘n’ funky sax riff amid harmonies to die for.
There’s still plenty of the whip-smart, witty wordplay that originally made ‘em leader of the pack. “Hard to Love” is a real charmer and rides Two-Tone Ska rhythms over what could only truly be described as gurgly space bass. “I would never hate you / But you’re hard to love,” winks Pierce. Dancing away the heartache is still an option then? The toppermost highlight though is “Days”, full of brooding glances, ripped Levis, trashville beatbox on the sidewalk, sad spiraling minor chords, killer bass, and stray cat harmonies. The lyric “Days go by and I never needed you” encapsulates the album’s theme of unrequited love and bickerin’ broken-hearted emptiness perfectly. “You broke my bones and I sold my soul,” its narrator says, kidding no one they can make it solo. It bottles that desperate longing ache the Drums excel at and will be, furthermore, officially compulsory for dancing in the dark under a blue moon. The Happy Days fade to black begins with the lush, passionate “I Don’t Know How to Love”. When Pierce wonders, “Why don’t you love me anymore? / I simply don’t understand,” he’s no longer just lonely, but now eternally lonesome. It all ends with a sweep of melodramatic grandeur and a sad signal to pack away the sun…
“The things I used to feel, I don’t feel anymore,” Pierce sings on “Searching For Heaven”, a turning point into uneasy listening, a step to the dark side. We’re not in Kansas anymore. In a heartbeat, night has fallen and the moonlit air drawn chilly. Over ominous ambient synths, Pierce’s slurred, broken vocal—“Will we dream again?”—feels like a suicidal SOS beamed back from space. The four songs that follow are similarly disconnected, disconcerting. The Joy Division hypnotics of “Please Don’t Leave” sound like someone trying to shake a sobbing, hysterical ex who’s clutching their leg whilst yelling “I won’t let go!” (We’ve all been there right?) “If He Likes It Let Him Do It” keeps things moody blue with a muscular robotic pulse, tall shadows and flickers of theremin-style Gothic decoration. A touch of fresh madness swiftly follows with the new dawn rising of “I Need a Doctor”. Twitching, carnival hypermania juxtapose some of Pierce’s most oddly acidic lyrics yet: “You know I love you / But I wanna kill you.” The longest winter though is the “straitjacket, size medium, pronto” shiver of “In the Cold”, where Pierce sings, “I just sit there in the cold / I know I won’t see you again.” It’s end-of-days melancholia and you’ll feel there’s a tiny, frosty ghost weeping in your stereo. The fact that it’s swiftly carried off stage by the hyper pretty, romantico finale “How It Ended” (“The Girl from Ipanema” complete with grass skirts ‘n’ garlands) and you will be left open jawed by the wildly strange ride that is Portamento.
Although the end result isn’t quite as exquisitely perfect as their debut, the Drums remain a rich, sincere, emotional and admirably contrary oddity. Portamento will charm you, hug you, haunt you and yes, sometimes baffle you whilst offering further proof that they are a more fascinating proposition than many give them credit for. It’s also laced with such death, rejection, and the fade of hope that it feels like the middle segment of some tragic operatic trilogy. “Do you think Jesus loves me? Can I go home again?,” they pondered wistfully at the end of their debut. Now as they stride tearfully, but with spirit unbroken, into uncharted waters, it would seem the Drums have their answers.